Firefighter training is hot topic

  • Ed Walker Staff photo by Ashley Saari

  • David Hall Picasa

  • Peterborough Fire Department member Ryan Hyde puts on his gear. Staff photo by Ashley Saari

  • Peterborough Fire Department member Ryan Hyde puts on his gear. (Ashley Saari / Monadnock Ledger-Transcript) Staff photo by Ashley Saari—Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Tuesday, December 26, 2017 8:16AM

Firefighting isn’t what it once was, local departments say. It’s more technical. And more dangerous – fires burn faster and hotter. And at the same time, the time for waiting lists of volunteers is in the past, and departments, particularly rural and volunteer departments, are struggling to recruit.

How do you reconcile the two?

Greenfield Fire Chief David Hall and Lyndeborough Rescue Chief and firefighter Don Cole tried to reach a compromise between the need for training and accommodating rural firefighters. The departments offered their firefighters a 100-hour class, less than half the time commitment of the standard 240-hour class. The streamlined version incorporates pieces of the training a firefighter gets in a state-regulated Firefighter I training, without a firefighter having to take the full class.

Hall said the course was developed from a clear need – it was requested by some area departments who were struggling to recruit people who had the time and willingness to commit to the full course. The course was reviewed and approved of by the state’s Fire Standards and Training said Hall.

The course is based on the same material that is taught in Firefighting I, said Hall. That course is taught in modules, and some of those modules have been pulled out to create this course. 

But for some area chiefs, they see a dilution of training as a potentially damaging route for firefighting to go down, despite the fact that the state has no requirement for the amount of training that a volunteer firefighter should or must have. Full-time firefighters, however, must have completed at least the full Firefighter I course.

“Whether you’re full-time, part-time or volunteer, we’re all doing the same job,” said Jaffrey Fire Chief David Chamberlain. 

“For me, it comes down to safety,” said Peterborough Fire Chief Ed Walker. “There is nothing worth compromising the safety of firefighters or citizens.”

Some of the larger towns in the Monadnock area – including Jaffrey, Rindge, Peterborough and New Ipswich – require Firefighter I certification. And since all departments in the region rely heavily on mutual aid assistance, it’s vital that firefighters know that the departments that have their back are trained on the same level.

“When we’re all trained differently, it makes it more challenging to work as communities,” said Peterborough Fire Chief Ed Walker. “To me, it comes down to safety. My first priority is the safety of the firefighters, residents and visitors.”

But Hall counters those arguments: Those firefighters who are interested in taking Firefighter I or Firefighter II certifications are still encouraged to. His class, he said, is for firefighters that don’t have the time to commit to that, but want more training than the standard certifications related to a firefighter’s gear, which amounts to about 16 hours of training.

“For those people, we’ve raised the bar, not lowered it,” said Hall. “Myself, I’ve never been happy to see the 16 hours be the standard.”

On his own department, said Hall, there are 19 members, three of which have completed Firefighter I, five of which have completed Firefighter II, and three of which went to and completed his 100-hour course. No matter their level of training, he said, all have similar responsibilities and may be the ones going into an involved house fire, for example.

And, Hall said, the course he offers gives a good foundation in what rural firefighters are most likely to face.

“The vitals are the interior firefighter skills,” said Hall. “The air pack and the protective clothing. Ladders, hose, ventilation. These are all components needed to be a smart and safe interior firefighter.”

Other skills, he said, were eliminated for focus, or because rural department don’t often use them, such as Hazardous Materials training, high rise firefighting and wildlands firefighting.

But those holes make some other departments nervous. Jaffrey, for example, does have multi-story buildings where high-rise training could come into play, said Chamberlain. And while a town might not have any local businesses that might require hazmat training, any accident on a major throughway could involve a truck carrying hazardous materials. 

“There’s no one day I can say for sure that I’ll have full staff,” said Chamberlain. “We need to rely on other departments. When I’m running an incident, I want to know that if I give someone an assignment, they can do the job.”

Not having consistent standards of training may also make it difficult for firefighters to move from department to department in the future, the program’s detractors argue. 

David Baker of New Ipswich, a firefigher who received his Firefighter I certification through the Peterborough Fire Department two years ago, said that he sees the skills he learned in that class as fundamental to the work.

“When you count it up, it’s about five weeks of full-time work to take Firefighting I,” said Baker. “There are sales jobs with less training than that. I do understand that volunteer departments are having trouble recruiting. The whole fire service is having a recruiting problem. But in a profession like this, the guys that you go in with, it’s important that they have the same knowledge set and put in the time.”

He knows it’s not easy, said Baker, who is a father of seven children, and who had two jobs while taking Firefighter I training. And while he now works as a full-time firefigher in Windham, he said, he didn’t take the class intending to change his career.

“I think that at a minimum, Firefighter I is a very basic, fundamental knowledge, and you need to have it for your own safety and for others,” said Baker.

Firefighter Walker Deschenes of Jaffrey said that also sees the benefits of the whole team working the fire ground having the same training and knowledge base.

“If you don’t have all of the modules under your belt, you’re at a disadvantage,” said Deschanes. “But obviously, any training is better than none. For people that aren’t able to swing the full class, it’s probably great for them.”

Having a higher training standard is fine for departments that can gather the numbers to still get out the door, said Hancock Fire Chief Tom Bates, but for a bedroom community with an aging population, filling volunteer positions is difficult, and options for training can help to bolster the departments numbers. Bates sent three of his firefighters to Hall’s fall session, one of which intends to later go on and complete Firefighter I certification, he said.

“Yes, we’d like to have everyone trained to the level of Firefighter I,” he said. “But those classes are made for someone who is looking to be a career firefighter. Most of the people on our department, they’re not looking for that. They’re looking for a way to help the town by volunteering.”


Ashley Saari can be r eached at 924-7172 ext. 244 or asa ari@ledgertranscript.com. She’s on Twitter @AshleySaariMLT.